Cabinet Meeting. Opinion on the
Case of the Little Sarah1
[Philadelphia, July 8, 1793]
At a Meeting held at the State House of the City of Philadelphia July the 8. 1793
The Secretary of State
The Secretary of the Treasury
The Secretary at War
It appeared, that Brigantine called the Little Sarah has been fitted out at the Port of Philadelphia,2 with fourteen Cannon and all other equipments indicating that she is intended (as a Privateer)3 to cruise under the authority of France, and that she is now lying in the River Delaware at some place between this City and Mud Island; that a Conversation has been had between the Secretary of State and the Minister Plenipotentiary of France in which conversation the Minister refused to give any explicit assurance that the Brigantine would continue until the arrival of the President4 and his decision in the case; but made declarations respecting her not being ready to sail within the time of the expected return of the President from which the Secretary of State infers with confidence that she will not sail till the President will have an opportunity of considering and determining the case. That is the course of the Conversation, the Minister declared that the additional guns which had been taken on by the Little Sarah were French property but the Governor of Pensylvania has declared that he has good ground to believe that at least two of her cannon were purchased here by Citizens of Philadelphia. The Governor of Pensylvania asks advice what steps under the circumstances he shall pursue.
The secretary of the Treasury and The secy of War are of opinion that it is expedient that immediate measures should be taken provisionally for establishing a battery on Mud Island, under cover of a party of Militia, with direction that if the Brig Sarah should attempt to depart before the pleasure of the President shall be known concerning her military coertion be employed to arrest and prevent her progress.
The Secretary of State dissents from this opinion.
Information having also been received that part of the Crew of the Sarah are citizens of the UStates; as can be testified by Charles Biddle of this City.6
The abovementioned heads of Department agree that this information shall be communicated to the Atty of the District in order that pursuant to his former instructions he may take measures for apprehending and bringing them to Trial.
Df, in the handwriting of H, signed by Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; D, in the handwriting of Jefferson, signed by Jefferson, H, and Henry Knox, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.
2. The Little Sarah, a British merchant vessel, had sailed from Philadelphia with a cargo soon after the news of the outbreak of hostilities between France and Great Britain had reached the United States. Shortly after her departure she was taken by the French frigate Embuscade and sent into Philadelphia as a prize. Upon the ship’s arrival a dispute arose concerning the disposition of her cargo, which was partly owned by American citizens. Then in early July it became apparent that Edmond Charles Genet, the French Minister, was having the ship equipped as a privateer to be sent, under the name of the Petite Democrate, to prey upon British shipping. Jefferson describes the situation in the “Anas” as follows: “The Secretary of the Treasury having communicated to General Knox and myself, that he had been informed that the Little Sarah had much augmented her arms, and was greatly advanced in her preparations, we concurred in opinion, that the Governor (of Pennsylvania) should be desired to have a re-examination of the fact. It was done, and a report made, that she had entered the port with only four guns, and now had fourteen. The next day being Sunday the 7th instant, I received a letter from the governor by express, informing me, that he understood she would sail that day …” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , I, 237). When it became apparent to Governor Thomas Mifflin that the vessel intended to sail, he dispatched Alexander Dallas, secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on a midnight visit to Genet to secure the latter’s assurance that the Little Sarah would not sail until the matter could be discussed with the President upon his return to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon.
When Dallas suggested to Genet that the Little Sarah be detained, the French Minister “flew into a great passion, talked extravagantly, and concluded by refusing to order the vessel to stay” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , I, 237). After Mifflin had reported Dallas’s failure to Jefferson, the Secretary of State visited Genet in an attempt to secure his promise that the vessel would not leave Philadelphia before the President’s return. According to Jefferson’s account of the meeting, Genet “said he should not be justified in detaining her. I told him it would be considered a very serious offence indeed if she should go away; that the government was determined on that point, and, thinking it was right, would go through with it. After some hesitation he said he could not make any promise, it would be out of his duty, but that he was very happy in being able to inform me, that the vessel was not in readiness, and therefore could not sail that day.… And whenever I tried to fix it to the President’s return he gave the same answer, that she would not be ready for some time, but with the look and gesture, which showed he meant I should understand she would not be gone before that time.… I then returned to the governor, told him what had passed, and that I was satisfied, that, though the vessel was to fall somewhere down the river, she would not sail.… On repeating to him and Mr. Dallas what M. Genet had said we found it agreed in many particulars with what he had said to Mr. Dallas; but Mr. Dallas mentioned some things which he had not said to me, and particularly his declaration that he would appeal from the President to the people. He did, in some part of his declamation to me, drop the idea of publishing a narrative or statement of transactions; but he did not on that, nor ever did on any other occasion in my presence, use disrespectful expressions of the President” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , I, 240–41).
4. Washington had gone to Mount Vernon on June 24, 1793 (JPP description begins “Journal of the Proceedings of the President,” George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 169), and did not return to Philadelphia until July 11 ([Philadelphia] Gazette of the United States, July 13, 1793).
5. Jefferson’s reasons for his dissent were sent to Washington enclosed in an undated letter which reached the President upon his return to Philadelphia. Jefferson’s letter stated that he “had expected that the Secretaries of the Treasury & War would have given to the President immediately the statement of facts in the case of the Little Sarah, as drawn by the former & agreed to, as also their Reasons: but Colo. Hamilton having informed Th. J. that he has not been able to prepare copies, Th. J. sends the President the copies they had given him, which being prefixed to his opinion will make the case complete, as it is proper the President should see both sides at once” (AL, letterpress copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress). Jefferson disagreed with H and Knox on the fortification of Mud Island on the grounds that he was satisfied that Genet would prevent the Little Sarah from sailing until the President’s return; that the proposed fortification might incite the French privateer to sail, in which case bloodshed would almost certainly result; that the cabinet had no authority to institute action in the President’s absence which might plunge the country into war with France; and that in the event the Little Sarah did put to sea in spite of Genet’s assurances the government would be able to explain the situation satisfactorily to France’s enemies. It would, he maintained, be “inconsistent for a nation which has been patiently bearing for ten years the grossest insults & injuries from their late enemies, to rise at a feather against their friends & benefactors …” (ADS, letterpress copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress).
On July 12 the Little Sarah dropped down the Delaware past the unfortified Mud Island to Chester. In spite of a request from the President to Genet, transmitted by Jefferson on July 12, 1793, requesting the minister to detain a number of privateers in port until the question could be referred to “persons learned in the laws,” the Little Sarah put to sea “three or four days after” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , VI, 345, 389).
6. Biddle had served as vice president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania until 1790 when the state’s new constitution went into effect. At the time this letter was written he was prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.